What is Life in the Spirit?

Entry into Jerusalem (Palm Sunday), 12th C. mosaic, Palermo Cathedral, Palermo, Sicily, Italy.

What is Life in the Spirit?

14th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A)

Zechariah 9:9-10; Psalm 145; Romans 8:9, 11-13; Matthew 11:25-30

The theme of littleness runs through the readings this Sunday, from the humble prince of peace riding on an ass to the little ones to whom the Son wishes to reveal the Father. The little ones of the kingdom bear the fruit of the Holy Spirit—love, joy peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23).

In St. Paul’s letter to the Romans, many in the churches had not yet fully experienced this abundant grace in the Spirit; hence the need to point out its contrast with the fleshly life. After accepting Jesus Christ as their Savior, believers still struggled with pride and other vices. Elsewhere in St. Paul’s letters, contentions and factions also arose among the followers of the “meek” king. Why didn’t a simple assent to truth automatically translate into the transfigured, deified life?

An objective, detached assessment of the spiritual life must admit that baptism is not a magical rite that automatically divinizes a person. It plants a seed of grace that must be continually watered, nourished, pruned and guarded in order to allow it to grow and flourish. Grace is the seed of glory. Seeds can also die in dry and barren ground, and never bear fruit.

Brothers and sisters: You are not in the flesh; on the contrary, you are in the spirit, if only the Spirit of God dwells in you.

Why would St. Paul use the conditional “if,” unless deification (transformation into Christ) was not automatic, but a process requiring watchfulness and attention?

For if you live according to the flesh, you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.

More “ifs” follow, plus the action verb “put to death,” with the Christian as the subject and the Spirit as our Paraclete. The baptized do not follow Christ by riding on his Cross, but by carrying it with him (a “yoke” is made for two) and crucifying the “old man” with its deeds. We have an Advocate to strengthen our spirit. The Greek Fathers used the word “synergy” to describe the process of deification—a mystical work of the human person and the Holy Spirit moving as one.

If the Christian life sounds burdensome, Jesus told us that the life of the little ones is restful:

“Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.”

In the Little Way of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, she described the spiritual life as a ride in an “elevator” to heaven, which sounds contradictory to the Pauline battle. But the life of the Little Flower was full of tearful self-conquest. Her testimony of ease and trust in Jesus (her “elevator”) came from a deep resolve to follow him day after day as a little child.

“The Lord lifts up all who are falling and raises up all who are bowed down” (Psalm 145:14).

-GMC

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